Callum Robinson arrived in Owings Mills in the fall of 2012 the way that legends typically begin ― from the other side of the world, across two continents and an ocean. The hulking Australian looked like a legend, too, with hair like Samson that dangled to his shoulders.

He stood nearly 6 1/2 feet tall and was pushing 250 pounds, with muscles upon muscles, perfect for the job that Stevenson University had brought him there to do, play defense for its powerhouse men’s lacrosse team.

The job is to be an enforcer, to intimidate, to cause chaos and disrupt your opponent’s offense, and he did it exceedingly well. In three seasons at Stevenson, he started all but one of the games he played, causing 123 turnovers — 52 of them in his final season. By the time he graduated in 2015, with a degree in chemistry, Robinson was an All-American and one of the three best lacrosse defenders in the country at his level.

He visited Baltimore for the final time last fall, when his 2013 team, winners of the NCAA Division III championship, was inducted into Stevenson’s sports hall of fame. He reunited with his teammates, attended a banquet and posed for a photo with the old trophy. He brought his girlfriend for the occasion, and they went to a Ravens game.

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Callum Robinson, far left, with his college lacrosse teammates. (Courtesy of Stevenson University)

“That team is very close-knit, and larger than life,” said the school’s athletic director, Brett Adams. None among them was bigger than life like the Big Koala, the nickname he picked up after arriving in the United States that belied his ferocity as an athlete. Off the field, no one could give a hug like the Big Koala.

“Sadly, that was the last time a lot of us saw him,” said his coach, Paul Cantabene.

Robinson’s body was recovered May 3 from an abandoned well in rural Baja, Mexico, along with those of his younger brother, Jake, and their friend Jack Carter Rhoad, an American. Mexican officials said the three men were shot and killed by assailants who wanted to steal their pickup truck.

The Robinson brothers and Rhoad had driven from San Diego to camp and surf the remote Baja coast, known for dependable, empty waves when winter arrives in the southern hemisphere. For surfers accustomed to crowded Southern California waves, going to Baja was living the dream. When spring arrives in the north, they start heading south.

“It’s what California used to be,” said Gary Linden, 74, a big-wave surfing pioneer and renowned maker of surfboards. “The new frontier became Baja.”

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“I can immerse myself in another country and it’s an hour away,” said Linden, who lives in Carlsbad and also has a home in Ensenada, not far from where Robinson was traveling. “It’s an easy way to experience being a citizen of the world. The food is different, the language is different, and the rules are different.”

The violent deaths of two Australians and one American have stoked wider conversations about safety and tourism in Baja and about violent crime in Mexico, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, about four times higher than the U.S. Mexico’s murders are driven largely by the drug trade and the cartels that control it.

The deaths of Rhoad and the Robinson brothers are among tens of thousands that occur each year, but theirs have attracted national and international media coverage. Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, expressed his condolences and offered to speak with the Robinsons’ parents, who traveled from their home in Perth to Mexico to identify their sons’ bodies.

“We know that they were truly loved and impacted many people’s lives,” said their mother, Debra Robinson, at a press conference last week in San Diego. She was standing near the Ocean Beach Pier, a short walk to her son’s home, where they are presently staying. “Please, live bigger, shine brighter and love harder in their memory.”

‘He needed to be near the waves and the ocean’

Robinson, who would have turned 33 on May 1, grew up in Perth, Western Australia, near the shores of the Indian Ocean but made his home most recently in Southern California, which resembled his faraway hometown. There, he could surf and set out on his surf ski, a type of sleek racing kayak — “a new toy and a new obsession,” he called it in 2021 in one of his Instagram posts.

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“He needed to be near the waves and the ocean,” said his onetime roommate Jen Adams, a fellow Australian and the head coach of the women’s lacrosse team at Loyola University Maryland. “His first text when he moved to San Diego was, ‘All set, just walked in the house, walking down to the beach to get a surf in.’”

He inherited a love of the water from his father, Marty, a waterman and, like his son, a fitness nut. As a boy, Callum was trained in surf rescue, a national tradition in a country surrounded by water. In September of last year, the family of four chartered a catamaran and sailed it around the Whitsundays, a group of islands off the northeast coast of Queensland. Adams said Robinson “chased fun and was a bit of thrill seeker. He couldn’t sit still. He was so active, so thirsty to get out and live life.”

That Christmas, during another visit back home, he and his girlfriend, Emily Horwath, went spelunking, hired a small plane for a private tour over the city and climbed to the top of the Matagarup Bridge, descending the span by zipline over the Swan River. He was an avid snowboarder, and he owned a Harley-Davidson V-Rod motorcycle that he named Betty. He also excelled at his country’s most popular sport, Australian rules football, which he grew up playing.

The man who seemed invulnerable did have one vulnerability, type 1 diabetes, which he lived with most of his life. He regulated his blood sugar levels with an insulin pump and a glucose sensor. He was open about it, posting on social media three years ago about an encounter with a young lacrosse player in California who also had the disease.

“Ethan doesn’t let diabetes dictate how he lives his life, and the challenges he has endured through his childhood have made him resilient and mature beyond his years,” he wrote about the boy. He could have been writing about himself.

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“He has learned to play the cards he was dealt and not make excuses for things he can’t control,” Robinson wrote in the post. “I want to be just like you!”

A shirtless Callum Robinson takes a selfie with a little boy holding a lacrosse stick.
Callum Robinson poses with a young fan. (Animal House Visuals)

In Australia, lacrosse is a grassroots sport that doesn’t command the attention of Aussie football, rugby, cricket, soccer or tennis. There are a few hotbeds in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. But opportunities to play and coach are more numerous in the U.S., where the sport was born as a game played by native tribes of Canada and America. Local universities, including Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Loyola and Towson, are among the country’s dominant collegiate programs.

Robinson was originally supposed to play for the Maryland Terrapins, where an older, childhood friend, Adam Sear, played from 2007 to 2010. The two had played for the same club, Wembley, as boys in Perth, and Sear was keen to help a younger countryman get the opportunity to prove himself at the U.S. collegiate level.

“No one had the enthusiasm and dedication that Cal did,” said Sear, who is an associate coach for the women’s lacrosse team at Notre Dame, also a perennial power. “He really wanted it. I decided, this is the kid.”

Robinson was accepted into Maryland’s school of engineering and was days from joining the team when Sear got a call while at an Orioles game from the school’s compliance officer, who told him there was an eligibility issue. The team couldn’t take Robinson.

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Sear was an assistant coach at Stevenson at the time, so when Robinson’s slot at Maryland fell through, Sear quickly turned him on to the alternative of Stevenson and convinced Cantabene that his old friend was a windfall not to be squandered. One day before classes began at Stevenson, a liberal arts college 20 miles northwest of downtown Baltimore, Cantabene spoke to the enrollment office about Robinson (eligibility rules differ for Division I and Division III programs). Within a few days, Robinson was on campus attending classes.

“He had a big impact on our program,” Cantabene said. “For a man of his size, he had great agility and speed. He was just able to do so many things. He could shoot the ball 115 miles an hour.”

Josh Rottman played with Robinson on a Baltimore club team and later covered him as a video producer for USA Lacrosse, the governing body of the sport in the country. From the sidelines, he remembered hearing the sound of Robinson check slamming his opponents.

“Defenders are usually brutes,” Rottman said. “They’re kind of closed-off and mean. Your job is to be mean. He was incredibly intimidating on the field. As soon as he got off the field, he had the warmest presence.”

Callum Robinson, an alum of Stevenson University in Baltimore County, was one of three people found killed near the township of Santo Tomás in Mexico on Friday.
Callum Robinson played for Stevenson University’s powerhouse lacrosse team in the early 2010s. He was nicknamed the Big Koala.

School officials are discussing the creation of a scholarship or endowment in Robinson’s name. Adams said his department is considering renaming an annual lacrosse tournament, the Mustang Classic, after him. Current players hope to pay tribute by memorializing Robinson’s No. 10 in some way.

“He had such a gentle aura,” Cantabene said. “He had a superhero persona to him, and people gravitated toward him. He was like everybody’s best friend.”

The “brute force” that Robinson demonstrated as a player came from the same place as his deeply protective instincts as a person, Sear said.

“He was a very sensitive guy,” said Sear, who last saw Robinson in Perth over the Christmas holidays. “He had so many dimensions to his personality. He was one of the most sensitive, understanding humans out there.”

In 2014, Robinson’s junior year at Stevenson, he played for Australia’s national team for the first time at the World Lacrosse Championship in Denver. Australia finished fourth, losing in the bronze-medal game.

“I feel pretty confident that playing for Australia would have been his proudest achievement,” Sear said. “I know it was mine.”

Living in Locust Point, playing in Annapolis

In 2015, his senior year, Robinson was picked 27th overall in the Major League Lacrosse draft by the Chesapeake Bayhawks, who played in Annapolis. He moved to Locust Point, into a townhouse belonging to Adams, who had also boarded Sear when he got out of college.

While living with Adams, he picked up another nickname, Aussie Thor, owing to his physique, his flowing locks and perhaps a passing resemblance to Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who played Thor in the Marvel movies. Robinson was in the habit of stretching shirtless in his front yard after a jog, fully aware he was putting on a little show.

A text message group formed to alert besotted neighbors whenever Aussie Thor went for a run, so they could conveniently step outside for a furtive glance under the guise of checking the mail or pulling weeds.

“What do you think, Jen,” he would ask Adams after a few minutes of flexing his abs and pecs. “Do you think I’ve been stretching long enough?”

After two seasons with the Bayhawks, the winningest team in the MLL’s history, he played two seasons for the Atlanta Blaze, another MLL team, but continued to live in Baltimore with Adams. In 2019, he joined the fledgling Premier Lacrosse League as a member of Atlas LC. Rather than tying teams to cities, the PLL toured major cities.

Community relations was an integral part of being a PLL player, which often meant coaching kids at camps and clinics. Robinson loved it, Sear said. The Big Koala was a natural ham and a huge hit with kids, whether in Japan during an exhibition match or at a clinic in eastern Washington state. Surrounded by helmeted 11-year-olds a quarter his size, Robinson’s purest nature came through.

After one boy struck him with a ball, Robinson chased him down in mock anger, threw him over his shoulder and affectionately squeezed his quarry as an example to those who would “mess with Coach Callum.”

During a riff on the game Sharks and Minnows, Robinson rampaged through the swarm of campers, knocking balls out of the pockets of their sticks, sometimes flicking entire sticks out of their little hands. The boys squealed with what sounded like delight twined with terror, clearly in thrall of the galloping giant.

On the last day of camp, Robinson turned a stretching routine into a dance session, getting the kids to demonstrate their best moves to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and then Post Malone’s “Sunflower.” The Big Koala could also dance.

By 2020, the PLL had absorbed the MLL. The pandemic soon arrived, and the 2020 schedule was canceled. Around that time, just before the lockdown, Robinson moved to Southern California. He returned to Australia to spend the lockdown, first quarantining in a hotel. The same year, Robinson retired from professional lacrosse, which never paid enough to be more than a nominal living.

Robinson went to work for a franchise of fitness studios called F45 and later for Pocket Properties, a crowdfunding app that allowed individuals to invest in real estate. In the fall of 2022, he joined Snap! Mobile, a Seattle-based software company that helps schools and youth sports teams raise funds. He was a regional development manager, according to his LinkedIn profile, and worked from San Diego managing the Southern California sales team.

“Through his work, Callum impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids,” his company posted on LinkedIn, “helping to raise millions of dollars so they could participate in the sports and activities they were passionate about.”

Callum Robinson guides a young boy through a lacrosse drill. As he's directing the child, several other children are playing with lacrosse sticks on a grassy field.
Callum Robinson works with young people on their lacrosse skills. (Animal House Visuals)

Robinson kept playing lacrosse, if not for money. He joined the San Diego Lacrosse Club (which organized a paddle-out on his local beach Saturday in Robinson’s memory). He was also a regular at the annual Honolulu Lacrosse Invitational, playing for a team sponsored by a Seattle company called Wimmer Solutions. But his life now had room for other pursuits, romance, visits from his parents, Padres games, concerts and surfing.

He also seemed to be settling down, moving into an apartment that Sear described as the first real home of his own in the U.S.

“He took a lot of pride in that,” Sear said. “Ocean Beach was such his vibe, a very homey beach town. It had everything Cal needed. It had the ocean, good coffee, good food.”

Final surfing trip

On April 5, Robinson walked to the gallery of a local photographer named Randy Dible, who displays his work at a storefront on Del Monte Ave., close to where Robinson lives.

A lifelong surfer, Dible, 62, grew up in San Diego and made a career of photographing surfers and beaches. Robinson wanted to purchase one of Dible’s pictures, a panoramic shot printed on metal of a local surf break, near the jetty that marks the entrance to Mission Bay.

Callum Robinson enjoyed the work of Randy Dible, a photographer and fellow surfer. (Handout)

As he often did with people he met, Robinson struck up a conversation and the two quickly realized they were neighbors and had a mutual friend in Rhoads. Dible offered to deliver the print to his house.

There, the two drank beer and talked about life and surfing. Robinson told Dible that his brother Jake, a doctor in Perth, was visiting him soon and he wanted to take him surfing in Baja. He invited Dible to come along.

Dible knew Baja well. He grew up camping on its beaches with his parents, his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To him, it was a magical, unspoiled valley of grazing horses, oak groves, vineyards and empty beaches. His family went every Thanksgiving to a specific beach at La Bocana. Other San Diego families often joined them. They hunted quail, fished and dove for abalone and lobsters, and feasted all night around a campfire.

Dible agreed to come along. He spoke Spanish fluently and would no doubt be useful on a trip to Baja. A few days later, he learned he had to work and backed out of the trip, but he drew a detailed map for Robinson. The place was at the end of a winding dirt road, about 15 miles from Highway 1, which starts in Tijuana and goes through the port city of Ensenada and southward to Santo Tomas, where Robinson was told to turn onto the dirt road.

The surfing excursion to Baja was part of Robinson’s birthday celebration with Jake, 30. Before the brothers took off for Mexico, they attended the Coachella music festival in the California desert. After surfing, the brothers planned to go snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Mexico trip started with postcard perfection. Friend and Snap colleague JT FitzGerald joined Rhoad and the Robinsons for the start. Callum posted an Instagram story with some early highlights: a stop at Rosarito Beach and the popular surf spot known as K-38; sipping cans of Tecate on a patio in Ensenada; tacos al pastor eaten streetside; dinner at La Hoguera, an open-air restaurant in Ensenada that specializes in grilled meat and salsa made tableside with a mortar and pestle.

FitzGerald left the group in Ensenada, returning to California on April 27.

The other three were reported missing that day. It was FitzGerald who started the GoFundMe fundraiser for the Robinson family.

In family photos, Robinson is a hulking figure. He more resembles his mother. His lankier kid brother more resembles his father. The brothers were exceptionally close to each other and to their parents, friends said.

“Not a lot of grown men want to spend a week sailing with their parents, but Callum loved it,” Adams said.

“There isn’t enough to say; there aren’t enough words about who he was. People were enamored of him. There’s not a single person who lives life with more zest and more love than he does. Callum loved all his people fiercely. He told you he loved you all the time, whenever you saw him, whenever he signed off in a text.

“When he hugged you, he would give you the biggest, tightest squeeze. That was how he lived his life. He squeezed every bit out of it. I always said he needed to have that giant body, because he had the biggest heart.”

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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